Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Preparing our Souls for Aging 1

While we need to tend to our bodies in preparation for the inevitability of age, we also need to prepare our souls.  

Because gettin' old is hard on our bodies, but it can be equally taxing on the entirety of our person.  Not just our physical being, the peculiar coalescence of star-stuff and ashes that defines our place in the universe, but also the ineffable and unique awareness that rises from our particular physicality.  

Our souls can struggle as much as our deteriorating bodies.  As we age, and the capacities and competencies of youth and adulthood wane, our sense of ourselves can unravel.  Sometimes, that involves the person departing the body well before the processes of organic life have come to an end.  My maternal grandmother suffered from dementia.  Grandmother was a pretty little woman, full of sparkle and mischief.  A fierce competitor on the tennis court, she loved dancing and driving fast.  She insisted on being the first one to teach me how to drive, taking me out to tool around in her car when I was thirteen.  I noted that this was a few years early, and she'd smile.  "I first drove when I was eight," she would say.  "I never got a license.  Never needed one on the ranch in Texas."  She was the sort of grandmother who buys Coca Cola...whole crates of it, in little eight ounce glass bottles from a local preparation for the arrival of her grandsons.  That, and boxes of Count Chocula and Frankenberry, which were entirely healthy, being part of a balanced breakfast and all.  

As she grew old old, what had been interpreted as simple forgetfulness deepened, and her ability to remember whether she'd prepared a meal...or eaten...began to slip away.  She still sparkled, moment to moment, for years.  In the last season of her life, as the dementia was joined by a slowly spreading cancer, Grandmother faded away.  Words vanished.  The ability to dress and feed herself evaporated.  That body was still mobile, that heart still beat in her chest, but...particularly in those last weeks of life...she was not present.  The twinkle had vanished from her eyes.  The person we knew had gone.

Alzheimers and other diseases can erase us, or make changes so radical to the flesh in which we have a foothold that we cease to exist as the person we have been.  In a former church, I would visit O, a woman of remarkable grace and patience.  O was in her nineties.  Her husband suffered from Alzheimers, and its impacts on him had been profound.  He was still physically able, but his entire persona changed.  He'd been a gentle man, thoughtful and quiet, a good husband and father, grandfather and great-grandfather.  With the onset of Alzheimers came a change in him.  He became angry, violent, and profane, his outbursts mingled with extended periods of incoherence.  For his O's safety and those of care providers, he was institutionalized.  

She wasn't angry with him.  "He's just no longer there," she would say.  

There's very little we can do about those impacts on our time in this world.  But there are other ways age can impact our souls that we can prepare ourselves to face.  Just as certain habits of life can shape the way our bodies age, there are habits of the soul that can ready us to meet the mortal challenges of senescence.